August 26, 2021
US Vice President Kamala Harris has arrived in Hanoi on a visit that has been described as “unprecedented” by senior experts.
Because of her senior role in the Biden Administration, Harris’s visit will confer recognition of Vietnam as a responsible member of the international community, according to Carl Thayer, Emeritus Professor at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Canberra.
“Vice President Harris’ trip to Vietnam signals that the Biden Administration gives priority to its relations with Vietnam within the context of its Indo-China strategy,” Carl Thayer said, adding that “It also signals that the US is committed to strengthening and developing their comprehensive partnership.”
Speaking in Singapore before the Hanoi visit, Harris said the partnerships in Southeast Asia and throughout the Indo-Pacific are top priority to the US.
For that reason, “We will invest our time and our energy to fortify our key partnerships, including with Singapore and Vietnam.”
“Vietnam is in an enviable position to ask for incentives to bolster Washington’s security concerns. To be sure, the Biden administration stands with its Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources, consistent with their rights and obligations under international law, and rejects any push to impose a situation of might makes right in the South China Sea or wider region,” according to James Borton, Senior Fellow Johns Hopkins University/SAIS, Foreign Policy Institute.
Prof. Thayer said Vietnam is important to the US because it plays a constructive role in ASEAN and is well-respected by the international community as evidenced by its election twice as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council (2008-09 and 2020-21).
“Hanoi also served as the venue for President Trump’s second summit with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un,” Thayer said.
While it’s unusual that Vice President Harris’s visit comes so closely on the heels of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the issues she will address will be highly complementary and reflect the broadening scope of the US-Vietnam relationship, said Brian Harding, a senior expert on Southeast Asia, the US Institute of Peace (USIP).
That Harris chose to visit Southeast Asia on just her second trip abroad as Vice President is highly notable. The Biden-Harris administration has tried to prioritize engagement with Southeast Asia, but numerous issues, including Covid, have made this difficult. Harris will be trying to make up for the lost time.
“Many observers will ask why the Vice President didn’t choose to visit Southeast Asian countries that Secretary Austin did not visit. One key reason is that Singapore and Vietnam are the two Southeast Asian countries leaning most heavily into their relationships with the United States,” Harding wrote to The Hanoi Times in an email.
However, it will be important for top US officials, such as Secretary of State Blinken or President Biden, to make stops in Jakarta, Bangkok, and other key capitals in the coming months, Harding added.
According to James Borton, Vietnam is regarded as a comprehensive partner in the region.
Borton said from Washington’s perspective its aim is to garner more regional cooperation from countries like Vietnam, Singapore. The Biden administration wants Vice President Harris to carry this message forward. It’s the same one that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin shared with Hanoi officials last month during his visit. “One of our central goals is ensuring our allies and partners have the freedom and the space to chart their own futures.”
Gregory B. Poling, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia and Director, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) told The Hanoi Times via an email that the vice president seems committed to following up on the message delivered by Secretary Austin last month and by Secretary Blinken during his virtual engagements with ASEAN leaders.
“That is a message focused on strengthening regional partnerships to combat shared challenges—Covid, climate change, cybersecurity, and supply chain vulnerabilities,” he said.
“The administration is working to show that Southeast Asia is important in its own right, not just because of US-China competition and that Vietnam along with Singapore and the Philippines are the most vital US partners in the region.”
Borton said in turn, during Vice President Harris’ Hanoi visit “senior Vietnamese officials may want to consider asking Washington, if these inducements may come in the form of additional pledged vaccine doses to combat Covid-19, additional funding to support Lower Mekong Delta climate change issues through the Mekong-US Partnership, no more threats related to human rights violations and elevating the Trade and Investment Agreement (TIFA) to more senior officials from the Office of Government in Vietnam, and the United States Trade Representative (USTR) in Washington.”
Meanwhile, Thayer believed that Harris would suggest stepping up cooperation in health (more Covid-19 vaccines, medical equipment and intellectual property/copyright transfer) and environment (climate change), economic ties (digital trade, investment, and stable supply chains), education, science, and technology, cyber security, and people-to-people exchange (culture, tourism, and sport).
“She will likely suggest strengthening the comprehensive partnership with a view to raising it to a strategic partnership and perhaps deliver an invitation from President Biden for a high-level visit by one of Vietnam’s top leaders,” Thayer said.
“Our partnerships will be grounded in candor, openness, inclusiveness, shared interests, and mutual benefits,” Harris said in her August 23 speech in Singapore.
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